Thursday, November 01, 2007

Logbook: Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius1I caught my train from Warsaw early Monday morning -- at about 7am -- and for the next six hours I had an uneventful ride through the Polish countryside. At the station just short of the border with Lithuania, the last two cars -- including mine -- were detached from the rest of the train and the remaining few of us were pulled across the border. Officials from Poland and Lithuania who had boarded the train examined and stamped my passports without issue or fanfare. A few minutes later we stopped at a middle-of-nowhere station where we disembarked, walked across the platform and boarded another train belonging to the Lithuanian railroad company. I've been on a wide variety of trains in my travels, but this one was easily the least modern. In fact, it was dark, dirty, dilapidated and downright antique. Reminding myself that I had entered a "Former Soviet Republic" and of the propaganda I have seen over the years about the level of infrastructure development which that implies, I settled in for a long, slow and uncomfortable four hour trip which nonetheless ended uneventfully at the central station in Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania.

In the station, I put my trusty PayPal card into an ATM and was both rewarded with some local currency and delighted by the routine return of my card. It was late, cold and dark when I emerged from the station, so I was glad that I had made a reservation at the local Holiday Inn and didn't have to scramble to find accommodations. I approached the only taxi at the stand and was relieved to be able to request my destination and negotiate the fare in English. The cab was only slightly more modern than the train and, of course, the driver was unable to get it started. After a couple of unsuccessful adjustments under the hood he gave me a smile and we had a laugh, then gave the car a good push and jumped inside while he kick started it in the middle of traffic to send us on our way. A few minutes later we pulled up to a bright, clean, modern "no surprises" hotel. Thus, with the train and cab experience on one hand, and the ATM, English-speaking and hotel experience on the other, I had been swiftly introduced to the kind of contradictions that are part of what makes Vilnius one of the most interesting places I have been.

Vilnius2I was pretty wiped out from my day of travel, so I called it an early night and slept in a bit on Tuesday morning. By ten o'clock, however, I was out on the streets trying to get a feel for the city. Right from the beginning, contradictions abounded. For example, while one of the main bridges across the river has statues at each of the four corners which pay tribute to virtuous Soviet vocations -- Farmers, Workers, Students and Soldiers -- most of the other Soviet-era statues and monuments in the city have been removed, making vacant lots of former memorial squares (See Dram below). Another example is that while the main street of the city has a full range of upscale retail shops with sky-high prices, one can find entire blocks that are completely derelict right around the corner. While traffic consists mainly of expensive European sedans, there isn't much of it and the well worn buses are completely packed. A cup of coffee cost me 6 Litas (about $2.25) but I was able to get a good bowl of soup, a tasty salad and a Coke for only 15 Litas. The list goes on and on, but you get the point: Vilnius is a city in transition between old Soviet poverty and new European Union prosperity. After a few hours of this conundrum I was pretty "full" and headed back to my room for a little recovery time followed by an early evening.

I had a sense from my wandering on Tuesday that I was missing some essential parts of the Vilnus story, so I booked a half-day tour for yesterday morning. Unfortunately, the weather was really crummy with rain, sleet and cold adding to the seasonal darkness. Fortunately, Justine the tour guide was pretty fluent in English and gave me and two folks from Finland a really informative tour. By means of stories in which she consistently contrasted "the Soviet days" and "ever since independence" I was able to start getting a feel for the contradictions I had sensed the day before and for just how interesting the city is in general.

Vilnius3Like much of the region, the balance of power has shifted many times over the ages. Between the Russians, Napolean, the Scandinavians, the Poles, the Germans, the Russians, etc., the history of the country has been fluid to say the least. I'm still not entirely clear about who did what to whom and when, but it is clear that everyone left their mark and the culture is very much an olio. With buildings ranging from the 12th century and into the 21st century, the architecture of the place is astonishing and there are many places in the city from which you can view the whole spectrum from ancient red brick to modern steel and glass. Perhaps most outstanding is the collection of some forty-odd Catholic churches from all of the various eras, most of which were "repurposed" by the Soviets as museums, warehouses, schools, prisons and administrative buildings, and are only now being restored to their religious use. Of the nearly as large number of Jewish temples the city once had, however, only one survives today. This is due mostly, of course, to the fact that during WWII the Jewish population -- once almost 30% of the city's population -- was virtually eliminated. Today, less than 1% of the population is Jewish.

Vilnius4Today was cold and blustery but not rainy, so I spent most of the day retracing on foot the tour we took by bus yesterday and I really enjoyed wandering pretty much all over the city. Since today is a national holiday -- All Saints Day -- many of the shops were closed and most of the people on the street had flowers which they were taking to the numerous cemeteries around the city. The contrast between the dark clothing and the bright flowers was striking to me. I wrote about "The Republic of Uzupis" below, so I will only repeat here that it is a real gem and was a treat to explore. I will add that it also features a very prominent monument to Frank Zappa. Go figure. About the only downside to my day -- and to my visit in Vilnius -- were some of my experiences with the people. In general, older employees in shops and restaurants are pretty surly and pay little attention to you. I spoke to a few of the bright, helpful young people at my hotel about it and they said it was an attitude left over from "the Soviet days." They added that this negative attitude of older people is one of the reasons that so many young people -- at least 25,000 per year -- are leaving the country to pursue economic opportunities elsewhere. It's not just the possibility of making more money, it's also the chance to work with positive, like-minded colleagues. This is yet another contradiction I observed, and it will be a very important issue for the country to somehow address.

I am so intrigued by Vilnius that I have been tempted to stay a couple of extra days and maybe even arrange an itinerary out to some of the other interesting places I have heard about elsewhere in the country. There are five UNESCO Heritage sites in Lithuania, a lot for such a small country. There are also the "Sahara-like" dunes of the Baltic coast and the "Outdoor Museum" where all of the Soviet-era artifacts were relocated after independence. What sights those must be! In reality, though, this truly isn't the season to be here to enjoy the area. It is really quite cold and dark, with very short days. So, I have satisfied myself with reporting that I have found a gem and that I plan to return here some day to spend some real quality time exploring it much more fully. I would strongly suggest you put it high on your destination list as well!

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